All for Won
Story by Mary Guthrie
Photos by Kim Leeson
Tw FB Yt Lin Pt
Complex Movement Lear deBessonet
To Top

Two Meadows Prize winners, one common goal: making sure the public is part of the art. Whether it's amping up social justice or turning a Shakespeare play into a musical, local community members are becoming active players in the creative process.

This year’s Meadows Prize winners are taking community participation to a new level by inviting Dallasites into the creative circle.

2015 prize recipients Lear deBessonet, award-winning director from The Public Theater in New York City, and Complex Movements, a techno-art social justice collective from Detroit, are both bringing large-scale projects to Dallas that openly embrace public input and partnership. Instead of watching from the seats, community members from Dallas are being invited to help create - and in some cases star in - projects that emphasize public feedback, social cause, art, entertainment and community building.

DeBessonet’s work centers not only on bringing theatre to the masses but including the masses in the spotlight; Complex Movement’s work centers on dialogue and performance as means to change the way people think about
and act on social justice issues. Both winners build positive energy for the community.

Although the Meadows Prize winners’ projects differ, the goals are similar. “What is critically important is their respect, dedication and approach to working with everyday people from the community in the making and creation of art – however that looks for them, be it a classic Shakespearean tale or a contemporary form of media and technology,” says Clyde Valentín, who oversees the prize as director of SMU Meadows’ Ignite/Arts Dallas initiative. “These projects exemplify our goals for the Meadows Prize of forging stronger relationships with arts partners and the community at large through new resources and fresh and engaging ideas. We want to encourage people to create a cultural energy that not only benefits our students but supports Dallas and its growth as a nationally recognized arts center.”

Lear Debessonet: Inclusive Theatre

DeBessonet’s New York Public Theater production of The Tempest in 2013 was unlike any other Tempest. Staged for free at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, it featured 200 non-actors alongside a handful of theatre professionals.

And it was a musical. The unconventional show received a standing ovation; The New York Times called it “… a love
letter to Shakespeare.”

Now, as part of her Meadows Prize residency, deBessonet is bringing The Tempest to Dallas, where it will be produced in collaboration with SMU Meadows and Dallas Theater Center, with support from The Public Theater.

Like the New York production, Dallas’s Tempest will feature non-actors from all walks of life – cab drivers, teachers, homeless shelter residents, stay-at-home moms – singing, dancing and reciting Elizabethan dialogue alongside professional actors. Kevin Moriarty, artistic director of Dallas Theater Center, is slated to direct the production, scheduled for spring 2017.

“Through this new partnership with Meadows and my longtime friend and colleague Lear deBessonet, we now have the opportunity to more fully engage in direct dialogue with an even broader spectrum of citizens throughout this great city,” says Moriarty. “This will culminate in the powerful and joyful act of creating theatre together.”

“Participation in the arts is transformative and a right for every human to engage in ... The arts should not be a luxury reserved for a select few.”

Theatre By And Of The People

DeBessonet has been making waves for years in the theatrical world with her unusual style of blending the stage and the community. Her goal is to make the arts accessible to everyone.

“Participation in the arts is transformative and a right for every human to engage in,” she says. “The arts should not be a luxury reserved for a select few.”

She notes that Shakespeare’s plays and many other classics have characters from a very wide spectrum of experiences. “You have those who are from different classes, sharing the space, sharing the stage,” she says. “That means that the play is about the whole world as opposed to one small segment of society. Many classics have this quality – they are large enough in their scope that they’re not presenting any one life experience. They are open for many different people.”

The rewards of producing such inclusive plays go beyond the production itself. DeBessonet and her colleagues at The Public Theater have noticed that participants gain a deeper sense of connection to the city they live in, to the people in the city and also to parts of themselves. “We’ve had people who were formerly incarcerated, men and women who have gone on to get jobs,” she says. “We had a 55-year-old couple that married after Winter’s Tale. We’ve had people who have been able to take the next positive step in pursuing their own education, in mending relationships that may have been broken in their lives. All of these transformations we see on the individual level.”

She also describes the lasting effect that such productions can have on the community itself. “The relationships built around the production don’t end on closing night,” says deBessonet. “For example, with The Tempest, the participants wanted to be able to stay in touch with each other, so we hold monthly potlucks at The Public for them. They’ve formed a newsletter that keeps track of birthdays and graduations and things happening in people’s lives. They attend shows and bring people from their own neighborhoods. We have classes at partner locations where people are furthering their skills in dancing, playwriting, acting, etc. It’s very holistic.

“There is something about the process with other people that really being seen, having their voices heard, just changes them and enables people to be the fullest version of themselves.”

Stage Novices And Honesty

Even though the plays she directs feature many non-actors, deBessonet says the quality of the plays is not weakened. “The rigors of production are very real and we don’t tone down any of that,” she says. “Actually, it’s the level of rigor, the demands of the project that impress that ‘You have to show up on time, we’re depending on you, you’re doing a lift in this scene, if you’re not there, the person will fall’ realization. The demands are real. People are able to catch the vision of it and act accordingly.”

DeBessonet says the novices can bring an original spark to the stage. “I do believe that every person has an added energy, a specialness, that if you see it and harness it correctly, can be featured in a show in a way that is illuminating and radiant. It’s featuring that best part of every person, and brings enormous honesty to the show.”

Complex Movements: Art As A Change Agent

Podzilla is coming. For its winter 2015 residency, the Detroit-based artist group Complex Movements will invite people to step inside its signature 400-square-foot pod to experience its three-part arts and activism experience, Beware of the Dandelions. The polyhedron structure, which will be set up in the Tower Building in Fair Park in Dallas in November 2015, is an immersive performance art space that serves three functions: as a classroom/workshop area; as a multi-media gallery; and as a performance space in which audience members become participants in a post-apocalyptic, hip-hop techno tale. The three components apply complex scientific concepts to social justice-based community activism, presented through several artistic medi-ums and community collaborations.

“Through our installations we aim to uplift local movement legacies and put them in conversations with movements in Detroit, Seattle and other cities where we travel with this work.”

The pod, nicknamed “Podzilla” by the five members of Complex Movements, is a work in progress, one that evolves with each city it visits. “Through our installations we aim to uplift local movement legacies and put them in conversation with movements in Detroit, Seattle and other cities where we travel with this work,” says the group.

First launched in Detroit in 2013, Beware of the Dandelions explored social justice issues pertinent to Detroit such as water cutoffs in low-income neighborhoods. When the group went to Washington, D.C., in 2014, Washington social issues were added to the multimedia gallery. In 2015, Beware will accumulate the issues of Seattle and Miami. By the time the group arrives in Dallas, the installation will reflect social and artistic narratives from five cities, including Dallas.

Collaborating With Dallas Groups

To support and learn from Dallas social movement groups, Complex Movements met with several groups, including members of SMU Meadows’ Ignite/Arts Dallas initiative; Mothers Against Police Brutality; the American Indian Heritage Day Committee; and the North Texas Dream Team, which assists undocumented youth. “Through the process of co-organizing with local community groups, we create space for local Dallas groups to connect and collaborate with each other,” says Complex Movements. “Through these community cohorts we listen and learn about community resistance and resilience in the face of challenges, and exchange stories and strategies.” Elements from such discussions, which take place in each city where Beware is installed, are then threaded into the installation.

Also as part of its residency, Complex Movements ventured into the community in fall and early winter 2014-15 for workshops, classes and cultural events. They spoke to classes at the Meadows School, University of Texas at Dallas and El Centro College and participated in an “Arts in the Inner City” panel at St. Philip’s School and Community Center. At a skill-sharing/art-making workshop at the South Dallas Cultural Center, the group demonstrated how they create, then blend, different kinds of art mediums such as audio recordings, photography and song to produce a new cohesive work addressing social justice issues.

The performance component of Beware of the Dandelions combines a science-fiction-themed parable, hip-hop performance, live and recorded video projections and real-time audience interaction.

“Not only do these top artists interact with our students, they integrate SMU Meadows and its resources more deeply into the community.”

Beware of the Dandelions was created to change the way people make change, re-imagine revolution and re-imagine social justice movements,” says Complex Movements. “We hope the takeaway is both a more accountable and mutually beneficial model for how to connect with arts and social justice projects, and the skills and relationships that last way beyond our time there.”

Impact On Dallas

SMU Meadows Dean Sam Holland says both winners advance important elements of the Meadows School vision. “Not only do these top artists interact with our students, they integrate SMU Meadows and its resources more deeply into the community,” says Holland. “In addition to our new relationships with The Public Theater in New York and Complex Movements of Detroit, we continue to build our collaboration with organizations in the Dallas arts district. With The Tempest, we look forward to working with Dallas Theater Center on another major work, which follows our recent collaboration on the premiere of Will Power’s Stagger Lee in January 2015.”

About The Meadows Prize

Meadows Prize recipients are pioneering artists and scholars active in a discipline represented by one of the academic units within Meadows: advertising, art, art history, arts management and arts entrepreneurship, communication studies, creative computation, dance, film and media arts, journalism, music and theatre. The Meadows Prize is sponsored by the Meadows School and The Meadows Foundation and managed by the Meadows Ignite/Arts Dallas initiative. Previous winners of the Meadows Prize were Grammy-winning contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird and New York-based public arts organization Creative Time (2010); playwright and performer Will Power and choreographer Shen Wei, artistic director of New York-based Shen Wei Dance Arts (2011); Tony-winning playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh and choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan, artistic director of Dublin-based Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre (2012); violist Nadia Sirota and socio-political artist Tania Bruguera (2013); and choreographer and founder of Urban Bush Women Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (2014).